- This event has passed.
Sunday, May 2 @ 10:30 am - 11:30 am
how to attend
• To virtually attend, please Zoom in using room number 989 3107 9078, passcode: chalice.
• To phone into the service, call 669-900-6833, Meeting ID: 989 3107 9078.
For those joining, please mute as soon as you enter the room, so everyone can hear. Please note, the services will be recorded, but at this time, there are no plans to share the recording.
I met Lee coming through the front door of the hospital. I knew who he was from photographs. “Lee!” I said, reaching out my hand. I’m your father’s minister; we’ve talked on the telephone…. I hate to tell you this, Lee, but I just left his room upstairs: your father’s dead.”
“No!” he gasped.
“He asked after you several times. We all thought you were coming two days ago.”
“I was delayed by an important meeting.”
“Lorraine’s upstairs with the body. And your sister too. Come; I’ll escort you.
As we made our way down the corridor I started thinking: this will be the first time he’s met Lorraine, even though she and his dad have been married for over a decade. I put my hand on his elbow as we stepped off the elevator. Following the blue line on the tile floor I heard him repeat, “Fourteen years and I’m one day too late.”
Lee had his reasons for staying away. As a teenager his father had been overbearing: constantly belittling him, his friends, his music; threatening him with military school and other indignities. At eighteen—over twenty years earlier—Lee had moved out West, where he’d found himself and, eventually, done well. He’d also come out as a gay man.
His parents’ divorce a few years later led to a complete break. “If it weren’t for his sister,” said Lorraine, “we wouldn’t have known if he was dead or alive.”
I introduced everyone and departed. Driving home I kept wondering; why do people break off communication like that? And shut each other out? I thought of the deceased’s last several weeks; his repeated confessed-but-unspoken apologies to his absent son—and his stubborn anguish. “I feel bad about how I treated him.”
“Why not call and tell him so? Before it’s too late,” I suggested.
“He broke it off, not me. He should call first. Then we can bury the hatchet.”
They never did. Two obstinate, inflexible people who, despite the depth of their connection, refused to reconcile. Until it was too late.
The story of Lee and his father is one of many I could have shared of church members I’ve known over the years who died while estranged from members of their family. Something comes between them and, for some reason, they choose to leave it that way. There are situations, of course, where breaking off contact is appropriate—situations of sexual or repeated physical abuse. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking this morning about situations where both parties long for reconciliation—but, with neither one willing to make the first awkward steps, nothing happens.
What makes these situations so sad is that they’re totally fixable. Reach out. Say you’re sorry. Forgive and ask for forgiveness. What, after all, is there to lose? Other than a chance—often one’s last chance—to heal a wound of the heart, and to repair the web of our relational life?
“No way!” some will say. My father/brother/sister/child/former friend was mean to me, or cruel to me. She never believed in me. He treated me poorly, or was insensitive to my partner. They cheated me.
All true, I’m sure. And reason to be upset, terribly upset. But not to break off contact. Especially in light of our mortality. People die. Including ourselves, often needlessly estranged from those we love. No guilt I regularly help congregants deal with is so debilitating as that which people feel for having not reconciled with a dying loved one. As far as I know, Lee Grayson, who couldn’t leave a meeting to affect a rapprochement with his dying dad, never lived it down. Don’t let that happen to you!
Religion recognizes the need for reconciliation on each of three levels: with oneself, with others, and with the environment. The Bible and other sacred literatures abound with stories of reconciliation. Joseph and his brothers, Jacob and Esau, and the Prodigal Son are three of hundreds—each of which may be thought of as a reflection of another, greater estrangement: that of humanity from the creative milieu around and within us—in a word, from God. The way to bridge that gulf, religion also tells us—the way to begin at any rate—is to reach out to other people in our midst.
It’s not that hard, and pays enormous benefits. Consider my friend Richard Carp, whose dad was Jewish. When Richard’s cousin fell in love with and married a Chinese/Brazilian goy his mother disowned him. She actually read the Kaddish over him, and said, “I have no son.” The father, forced to choose between wife and son, told his son, “I have to live with her—not you!” Years later the disaffected mother took a workshop on conflict. All participants were required to consider a personal unresolved conflict in light of what they were learning about conflict resolution. As a result she had an epiphany and completely changed her position—calling her son and daughter-in-law, apologizing fully and seeking restitution and reconciliation. It was freely granted and from that day forward she and her husband became the best of in-laws and grandparents.
A few years ago a cover story in our denominational magazine, the UU World, was an article by Paula Cole Jones, a member of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, DC. more recently Paula Cole Jones has worked to promote the 8th Principle Project and will share the pulpit with me here in two weeks. In her UU World article, Paula describes a growing rift between her and her sister, a rift successfully bridged when Paula intentionally reached out to her sister in an effort to reconcile. In a sidebar article Ms. Jones lists several concrete practices that family members—and others divided by conflict—can employ to do likewise.
Conflict can divide families, and sometimes whole communities. Churches are not immune. In the course of its seventy year history, ESUC has experienced congregational conflict. It can be sadly destructive. But not always! Consider the UU Church a colleague once told me about, back on the village green in New England. There was a brass cross hanging behind the pulpit in the sanctuary. A wave of new members joined and suddenly a movement grew to remove the cross. Rumors and gossip started to percolate. Soon some of the old-timers had their hackles up. It was about to become polarizing when the minister wisely asked key people on both sides to come to a meeting and talk about it. And really listen to one another.
In short order the old-timers explained that the cross was a memorial gift honoring dear Helen Formermember. Many of them had contributed to it. It was part of their church and it wasn’t coming down—No Sir!
Now it was the anti-cross people’s turn. They talked about how disconcerting the cross was for each of them. They’d heard from friends about what a warm, open-minded place this church was supposed to be, but just seeing the cross hanging there had made some of them nearly walk out before they’d met a soul. They talked of still-tender wounds carried from childhood church abuse; for some the cross was a symbol of persecution, anti-Semitic or otherwise. Others, citing UU openness to all the world’s religions asked, “why only a cross?”
Then the old-timers had their turn again. They never imagined a cross on the wall could have such a negative impact; they were so sorry. For them, it was a reminder of Helen. Dear Helen. Stories about her began to fill the room, until one of the elders said, “You know what Helen would do, of course. We’ll take it down. Helen would
never let anyone feel unwelcome in her church.” They all smiled and agreed—
Except the newcomers. “No!” each of them cried, “We won’t let you do that. We
didn’t know about Helen, but now that we do, how could we let her memorial be removed.” So the cross stayed—for many years, until after the last person who had known Helen had died.
Another story of reconciliation comes from nearer by—at our denominational camp and conference center in Seabeck during the early 80’s when the nuclear freeze campaign was an urgent concern for many. Word got out that a nuclear submarine was coming into port nearby. Several conferees were eager to go and demonstrate. Live the faith! They suggested that the conference activities be rearranged so that the whole camp could go.
The whole camp, however, didn’t want to go. Several of the people at the conference were retired or active military, or worked in the defense industry. A strong defense capability ensures world peace, they say; they are in full support of our country’s national military policy. Many others in attendance had come to enjoy and benefit from
the conference and didn’t want to give up a day’s planned activity—especially not if it was going to generate conflict.
After much discussion it was decided that the conference would go on and that those who wanted to demonstrate instead could do so. The demonstrators made their posters and got ready. The day of the protest turned out to be nasty all around: cold and windy too–but off they went, held up their signs, stood together at the roadside and sang out for peace.
When they got back to the camp, they found that the activity plan had been modified after all. The lodge was redolent with the smell of cocoa and fresh-baked cookies. There was a fire in the fireplace. The pro-military folks had blankets and towels, dry sweatshirts and slippers and socks all ready for them, and welcomed them back with hugs and affection.
Communities can reconcile just like individuals, when the spirit is strong and when members choose to reach out to those with whom they’ve disagreed.
What keeps us from doing so? From reaching out to those from whom we’ve become estranged? Like petulant children, we’d sometimes sooner miss our supper than apologize and be friends again.
Poet William Carlos Williams was a lifelong member of the Rutherford, NJ Unitarian Church. He also suffered more than one heartfelt rift with his wife. Williams’ poem “Asphodel Thy Greeny Flower” asks her forgiveness, and for reconciliation. The deepest part of love, he writes, is around the area of forgiveness; that which feels like permanent injury can be healed through love. These verses, it seems to me, are a recipe for reconciliation—for learning to reach through pain and estrangement to the renewal of mutual hope and promise.
What power has love but forgiveness?
In other words
by its intervention
What has been done
can be undone.
What good is it otherwise?
…With daisies pied
and violets blue,
we say, the spring of the year
So may it be
with the spring of love’s year
if we can but find
the secret word
to transform it.
It is ridiculous
what airs we put on
to seem profound
while our hearts
for want of love.
Having your love
I was rich.
Thinking to have lost it
I am tortured
and cannot rest.
I do not come to you
with confessions of my faults.
I have confessed,
all of them.
In the name of love
I come proudly
as to an equal
to be forgiven.
Let me, for I know
you take it hard,
with good reason,
let me give the steps
if it may be
by which you shall mount
again to think well
Eighteen summers ago I met with my mother for the last time before she died. I’m so glad I seized that occasion to apologize for the many slights and wounds I’d inflicted over the years and to ask for her forgiveness—which she readily conferred. Then she asked the same of me and I replied in kind.
Please, all of you, do likewise. Before it’s too late. If there’s someone you care about from whom you’ve become estranged, reach out to them. Don’t be like Lee Grayson. Be instead like William Carlos Williams, learning anew—again and again—how to love.
Life is short. Love is precious. Reconcile, before it’s too late! Amen.